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New psychology research reveals a dark side of curiosity

The desire for knowledge is generally associated with positive outcomes. But new research provides evidence that curiosity also has a darker counterpart. The research indicates that a psychological concept known as deprivation curiosity is associated with memory errors, intellectual confusion, and a reduced openness to new information that contradicts one’s existing beliefs.

The new research, which appears in the Journal of Research in Personality, distinguishes between interest curiosity and deprivation curiosity. Interest curiosity refers to the general motivation to learn new things and the joy of exploring, while deprivation curiosity refers to the desire to reduce the unpleasant feelings associated with uncertainty.

“When people think about curiosity, I don’t think they necessarily make this distinction. But when it’s pointed out, I think a lot of people can relate, and know which of the two they’re more strongly driven by,” explained study author Claire Marie Zedelius, a research manager in the Scientific Research Group at YouGov.

“This distinction isn’t something this research uncovered,” Zedelius noted. “Others have done that before us. So, this is just the foundation from where this research started.”

In a series of four studies, which included more than 2,000 participants in total, the researchers found that individuals high in deprivation curiosity tended to score lower on a measure of intellectual humility. In other words, people who agreed with statements such as “I can spend hours on a single problem because I just can’t rest without knowing the answer” were more likely to also agree with statements such as “When someone contradicts my most important beliefs, it feels like a personal attack.” Higher levels of interest curiosity, on the other hand, were associated with an opposite pattern of results.

“The interesting and new take-away from our study is that the two types of curiosity are associated with very different outcomes. Differences in people’s general knowledge, differences in the way people process information, and surprising differences in the errors people make with information,” Zedelius told PsyPost.

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“What we found out about the nature of interest curiosity I think confirms an intuition that probably a lot of people have: that curiosity is a very desirable trait. More interest curious people (compared to less interest curious people) have greater general knowledge (trivia knowledge), they are more accurate at distinguishing information they’ve seen before from brand new information. They are also more intellectually humble, meaning they embrace the fact that their own convictions could be wrong. All good things.”

“What we found out about deprivation curiosity is more surprising, and less rosy,” Zedelius continued. “More deprivation curious people don’t have greater general knowledge. And they make these interesting mistakes — ‘false alarms’ in different kinds of tasks: In a task that’s a lot like a typical general knowledge test, they claim to be familiar with made-up concepts. Not because they claim to know everything on the test, but because they confuse real and made-up concepts. And similarly, in a memory-recognition task, they don’t distinguish accurately between information they’ve seen before and new information. Their mistake there is that they believe they’ve seen things before that are actually new.”

To examine whether the negative effects of deprivation curiosity were the result of “an extreme openness towards any and all information,” Zedelius and her colleagues examined receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit in two of their studies. Receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit refers to the tendency to mistake meaningless sentences (such as “wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”) for profound statements.

Additionally, in their fourth and final study, the participants were shown a series true and false news headlines presented in the style of social media posts. After reading each headline, they were asked to indicate the likelihood that the headline was true and how likely they would be to share the news.

“The results are in line with our idea that highly deprivation curious people have an excessive openness to information,” Zedelius told PsyPost. “More deprivation curious people are more likely to see meaning in meaningless gibberish sentences, and they are more likely to entertain pretty blatant disinformation (including about politics, COVID-19 vaccines, but also other less polarizing topics).”

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“It’s not that they are completely gullible. In an absolute sense, they aren’t convinced that the false information we showed them is true, but they are somewhat likely to believe it. They are open to entertaining it being true. They are also more likely to say they would share it with others.”

But the researchers were surprised to find that cognitive reflectiveness did not appear to mediate the relationship between deprivation curiosity and belief in fake news. A lack of cognitive reflectiveness, which is characterized by the tendency to “go with your gut” instead of thinking critically, has previously been linked to the spread of misinformation.

“The findings with regard to disinformation are of course especially timely,” Zedelius said. “It’s still a bit of a puzzle what makes people vulnerable to believing and sharing disinformation. We know a lot about it from other research already, but our research shows that there are some overlooked factors, too. Other research has found that ideology and a lack of critical thinking can make people open to believing disinformation. I think most people will find that very intuitive, maybe even self-evident.”

“But we found that curiosity presents a completely separate pathway to falling prey to disinformation. Because the highly deprivation curious folks aren’t bad at critical thinking, and they don’t share a particular ideology. They have a different reason for believing disinformation. The reason — we hypothesize — is a genuine but overly excessive openness to information.”

Zedelius and her colleagues also found evidence that interest curiosity but not deprivation curiosity was associated with an increased gain in pleasure after learning new information about a piece of artwork.

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“We developed a new art viewing task, in which we exposed people again and again to the same image,” she explained. “This becomes boring quickly. Then we told them something new about the context of the image, the meaning and how it came to be. This makes the image suddenly interesting again. But not equally so for everyone.”

“We found that people higher in interest curiosity experience a greater sudden increase in pleasure from this new contextual information. I think this is something people can experiment with, especially in teaching contexts. Finding new angles to old information to catch people’s interest. It’s good to know some people will be more sensitive to that than others.”

Previous research has demonstrated that interest curiosity and deprivation curiosity are distinct constructs. However, they are also correlated with one another, which is not surprising — both types of curiosity share the desire for knowledge as a core feature.

“So a lot of people are both highly deprivation curious and maybe also relatively interest curious,” Zedelius explained. “We showed statistically that this isn’t a problem for our findings — some of this is in the paper, other parts were cut in the review process.”

“So if somebody thinks: ‘Wait a minute, I really identify with the description of a highly deprivation curious person — I have to finish every book I start, even the ones I don’t enjoy, and if I don’t know the answer to a knowledge question, I can’t let it go — but I am very humble and I would never share misinformation’ — then maybe one reason for that is that the person might also be very interest curious, and that could have a protective effect.”

The study, “Inquisitive but not discerning: Deprivation curiosity is associated with excessive openness to inaccurate information“, was authored by Claire M. Zedelius, Madeleine E. Gross, and Jonathan W. Schooler



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